Capturing Russia’s Northern Beauty

Why artists and musicians can’t help falling in love with the North Pole

When Italian composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi braved the Arctic waters to perform a special concert in June 2016, he had a message to send. His work – performing the specially written composition “Elegy for the Arctic” on a floating platform near the Spitzbergen archipelago – was designed to promote a Greenpeace campaign to designate the polar waters an international sanctuary. Yet Einaudi is far from the only artist to be inspired by the Arctic tundra. dug into the history books to bring you more stories of classical artists that have created stunning music and visual images in the unlikely northern environment.

Polar Classics

Cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich was among the first to perform in the Arctic, performing a series of concerts in several locations inside the Arctic Circle in 1965. For many of the modest local venues in the Russian North, it was the first time they had received such illustrious guests as Rostropovich and his celebrated colleagues, accordionist Yuri Kazakov, Bolshoi Theatre soloist Alexey Geleva and Valery Tokarev from the Moscow Philharmonic.

Some 40 years later, cellist Denis Shapovalov – a student of Rostropovich - became the first classical musician to give a concert on the geographical North Pole. After mentioning in an interview that he had played the cello “everywhere except for the North Pole,” he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse – to perform at the inaugural ceremony of a travelling museum celebrating Russian Arctic exploration.

Braving an extreme -30C (-22F), Shapovalov played Bach, Schubert and the song “Moscow Suburb Nights” for 23 listeners at the Pole in April 2007. “My hands went numb with the frost. The concert took place in a tent, which was so cold I couldn’t get the cello endpin out. I played both Bach and Schubert in the baroque manner. The accompaniment was provided by a helicopter, which was waiting for us 20 metres away,” the cellist remembered.

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Denis Shapovalov

The recital was interrupted by the helicopter pilots. The Arctic winds were gaining strength, and the group had to leave immediately for the Borneo Polar Station, where Shapovalov gave another concert to an international audience of researchers and travellers.

It was not to be the last classical concert at the North Pole. In 2009, violinist Dmitri Kogan joined an unprecedented project to deliver the Easter fire from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to the Earth’s axis point. Kogan played a piece by Bach and the Russian state anthem in a polar explorers’ tent at sub-zero temperatures.

“Everything was great. I didn’t even feel the cold. Considering the temperature, I decided not to risk my Guarneri and used a less valuable violin,” Kogan said later.

Fifty Shades of White

Painters have also fallen for the irresistible appeal of the deep North for generations. Alexander Borisov, Russia’s best-known Arctic painter, sailed with several Arctic expeditions to the Far North in the late 19th century, creating masterpieces such as “Samoyed’s Home”, “Polar Night in the Spring”, “Full Sun Eclipse” and “The Land of Death.” They can now be found on display in the Tretyakov Gallery.

Borisov made sketches and studies throughout his polar voyages, using the earnings from presenting and selling his pictures to fund further expeditions. During a journey to Novaya Zemlya, the yacht Borisov was travelling on became caught in the ice. The crew had to leave the vessel and were stranded on the ice floes before finally being rescued by the local Nenets people. Borisov made great friends with the Nenets and even inspired Tyko Vylka, a Nenets hunter who had famously killed over a hundred polar bears, to become a painter.

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Novaya Zemlya Archipelago

Borisov was so fascinated by the North that he decided to stay in Novaya Zemlya for a winter. In preparation for the daring move, he built himself a house and learned to subsist on nothing but raw reindeer meat and fish. “The paints on the palette got so thick in the -35C (-31F) frost that they felt like dough on the brush and wouldn’t stick to the canvas. In this devilish cold, even the turpentine oil congealed at the bottom of the vial into odd white balls, which quickly dissolved in the warm room,” the artist remembers. The coldest temperature at which he painted was -38C (-36F).

Thanks to Borisov, a number of objects in Novaya Zemlya were named after Russian artists and gallerists, including Tretyakov Glacier, Cape Shishkin, Cape Kuindzhi, Cape Kramskoi, Cape Vasnetsov, Cape Vereshchagin and Cape Repin.

Author: Alexandra Fedotova